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Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The "Riviera" of California

When we travel, we like to go places that regular travelers may not be interested in going. When planning our trip to Palm Springs, I scoured Google Maps to check out what things in the area might worth checking out. One of those things was the Salton Sea, which sort of promised to have some good photo ops and possibly even a walk on the beach. I was right, but also very, very wrong.

While in Palm Springs, we drove out to Salton Sea, which sort of promised good photo ops and a walk on the beach. I was right, but also very wrong.

I didn't do any research outside of looking at the map, so on one of our days, we got breakfast, stopped in Indio to see the Coachella Valley Museum, then headed out on a drive to see what the Salton Sea had to offer. In Oregon, any seaside town has a certain charm, no matter how small it is, so when we also learned at the museum that this was meant to be the Riviera of California in the 60s, I was more excited to go check it out.

For a time, the Salton Sea was the vacation destination and the area was growing with vacation homes, resorts, and golf courses, then, suddenly everything was abandoned and nobody ever returned. So, what happened? Well, to understand that, you have to know how the Salton Sea came to be, because it wasn't a natural lake. 

In 1905, a ton of rain caused the Colorado River to flood and spill into this natural crater, called The Salton Sink/Basin, now the largest manmade lake in California. In the years following, farmers were using the river water for their land and diverted the excess into the basin to keep the lake the way it was now. 

In the 50s and 60s, it became an unlikely vacation destination, and they decided to capitalize on it, and it was working. It was marketed as the Riviera of California and people flocked to this spot. They trucked in saltwater fish to stock the lake for fishing and there were watersports and yacht clubs and people lounging on beaches with drinks, but then water run-off containing fertilizers were entering the water and created a layer of algae on the bottom, which in turn created a poisonous atmosphere for the fish and birds, causing them to basically all die off pretty suddenly. Not a great atmosphere for a relaxing vacation. The travelers moved on to better recreation spots.

The saltiness of the sea is so high, it can't sustain wildlife and the beaches are almost nothing more than fish skeletons. That would have been okay, but in the 90s the water levels lowered to the point that the lake bed was exposed and the diseased dirt formed dust clouds that made the towns hard to live in with the terrible air quality. People still living there moved out and didn't move back. 

Now, the towns are basically deserted, with bones of resorts and homes being the most likely thing you'll see. There are a few people still living among these abandoned buildings and there's a recreational area on the opposite side of the lake from Salton City, and RV park at Desert Shores, and even a market (one of the only places still open for business when we were taking a tour).

This is a place to explore if you like abandoned places, but make sure you bring snacks and drinks with you, as you won't find much out there. Luckily, it's less than an hour drive from Palm Springs to Salton City, and there's also the town of Indio and a casino resort nearby, but all the beaches on the west side that we found were private property. 

The mountain views can't be beat.

Did we find places to take photos? Of course we did. Most were buildings that had fallen into disrepair, but also a motel that, shockingly, claimed to be open with vacancies. Some of photos I took still felt very cool and personal, like maybe we shouldn't be there, even if no one else was there either. I would love to go back and explore different areas around Salton Sea, but in the meantime, if you'd like to learn more, check out this post. It has photos of then and now and a very short video documentary. 

If you rent a car and want a completely different vacation vibe than that of Palm Springs, take a day to drive out to the sea. It's quiet and the drive is beautiful. Maybe on the east side you'll find actual beach lounging opportunities, but you'll also find a lot of fish carcasses, which may or may not detract from your relaxation. 

Do you love abandoned places? What are your favorites?

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